When the developers of turn-based tactics RPG Tahira : Echoes of the Astral Empire released a demo to coincide with PAX Australia, it was an opportunity too good to pass up. With a list of inspirations which includes the likes of Fire Emblem, Advance Wars, Final Fantasy Tactics, and XCOM, Tahira knows how to push all of my buttons.
Whale Hammer Games successfully raised almost $70,000 AUD (approximately $50,000 USD) on Kickstarter in March, 2015 in order to make Tahira, so I had high hopes for the demo. First impressions were a little underwhelming, with the Unity default resolution selector popping up and all but one menu option greyed out. At the end of the opening story sequence, the entire game froze for around 10 seconds before I realized it was loading without on any onscreen indicator. Once you get past the rudimentary menu and the odd glitch, however, you can see that they’ve been concentrating their efforts where it matters most.
The game jumps straight into a tutorial level which does an excellent job of explaining the core combat and controls. The UI is clean and elegant but all of the information you need is readily available. You can’t help but notice that The Banner Saga has also been a major influence for Whale Hammer. Leaving aside the visual similarities, the interface and a number of combat mechanics have also been borrowed from Stoic’s hit game.
One other area where they’ve borrowed from The Banner Saga is by wrapping each level of tactical combat in an overarching story. On the plus side, people like me who feel more invested in a game with a narrative will get drawn in. On the negative side, there’s no real sense of strategic continuity because members of your team who were dead men walking with 1 hit point are suddenly back to full strength two minutes later because the next plot point says so. It’ll be interesting to see how the developers handle this in the full game and whether they’ll find some way to incorporate long-term strategic consequences to how battles play out.
As with any game in this genre, it really comes down to whether or not you find the battle system accessible enough to get into while still managing to combine enough layers of complexity. I’m pleased to report that Tahira doesn’t disappoint here. Aside from the usual attack options, your squad members also have “Special Actions” which might either boost your defences or allow you to attack multiple adversaries in one turn. I particularly like that special actions cost willpower, which is replenished by killing enemy units, as this allowed me to adopt a more attacking style than I might otherwise in this type of game.
Despite the relatively simplistic interface, there are plenty of tactical options available in the demo. Attacks are granted a flanking bonus to damage for each additional squad member who is adjacent to an opponent. Taking advantage of this has its own risks attached, since crossing through any square immediately adjacent to an opponent gives the enemy a free swipe at you as you pass. Special actions even include mini-puzzle elements like being able to attack multiple enemies in a row or column on the map.
My only real concern with Tahira is whether the developers will be able to add enough variety and tactical depth to make the game worth playing for longer. As a demo, it’s great but you can’t help noticing that the number and variety of special attacks is very limited. The developers are estimating 4-5 hours of gameplay for the first episode alone. Whether the game will continue to hold the attention that long and on into subsequent episodes is something we will have to wait until next year to find out. From what I’ve seen in the demo, I’m optimistic that this could be a bit of a surprise hit.